- The many indigenous peoples of Amazonia (a vast area of South America drained by the Amazon River, including its highland watersheds) traditionally employ and/or fear shamans. A common theme in recent academic discussions of the region’s shamanic understandings and practices is the importance of blood (i.e., violence) and tobacco. There is also a more general interest in the visionary plants or psychoactives, substances, and brews employed by shamans or their clients (especially ayahuasca). Perhaps this is not surprising given the large numbers of available plants that are used in the region. As is common elsewhere, initiation among Amazonian shamans typically involves illness (sometimes self-induced by overconsumption of tobacco), journeys to other worlds (sometimes unwilling), dismemberment, and relationships with other-than-human helpers or allies (sometimes including marriage). Shamans’ roles in Amazonia are also similar to those elsewhere: healing, seeking knowledge, conflict against enemies, and protection from predators. Specific elements of particular cultures and variants within the broad Amazonian culture create different stresses from what is encountered elsewhere. In particular, the pervasive division of the animate cosmos into predators and prey provides shamans with specific roles. They are commonly associated with jaguars, even to the extent of being known as jaguars themselves, placing them firmly on the predator side of the equation. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro notes that a shaman’s major role in this context is to perceive the underlying (humanoid) person disguised by the clothing of animality, to tell whether the approaching person is a predator or not, and to deal with predators when they do approach. Unlike European-derived culture/ nature dualism, Amazonian peoples understand that the cosmos is essentially cultural, even monocultural, and that differentiation is not expressed as multiculturalism but as “multinaturalism.” What is important, and sometimes vital, is to know when a being is subjectively involved or interested in one, especially if they intend to treat one as prey. But the ability to share the perspective of other-than-human persons (e.g., seeing rotten meat as cooked food, as vultures do, or humans as prey, as jaguars do) is dangerous, and shamans manage it only after initiation and training, and even then with care. At the same time, however, this learned ability leads to degrees of separation between shamans and their human communities. Shamans become suspect and at least potentially dangerous. The notion that shamans may be transformed into the appearance (at least) of their otherworld helpers or power animals or plants may seem romantic (and this may explain its attraction to neo-shamans), but in its Amazonian form, it entails a shift away from humanity and human kinship. At its extreme, as in dark shamanism or kanaimà, shamans are suspect of becoming cannibal predators. In writing about the Warao, Johannes Wilbert notes the association of older shamans with offensive sorcery and also with cannibal deities who seek the blood and flesh of humans. Although such betrayals of their own people make shamans suspect, dangerous, and potentially unwelcome, it may also be recognized that they play a mediating role with powerful beings who might otherwise entirely destroy and consume humanity. Both among the Warao and more widely, the more normative and acceptable style of shamanism in the region is concerned with healing and protection from enemies. Many indigenous languages here use words cognate with piya or payé, but according to Alan Campbell’s ethnography of the Wayapí, these may not be nominative forms (nouns equivalent to shaman or shamanism) but instead verbal and adjectival forms: activities or particular kinds or styles of activities or active beings. Thus, while some Amazonian peoples employ shamans, others merely recognize particular abilities, actions, or styles as being “shamanic.” The influence of Amazonia on the academic and neo-shamanic construction of shamanism is particularly associated with the ethnography of Michael Harner among the Untusuri Shuar (Jivaro) and Conibo and his promulgation of core shamanism.
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.